National Fisherman

Prospects of another late season start, price wrangling put crabbers in a pinch

Alaska & Pacific Dungeness

California Dungeness crab fishermen's season may start late again, but if landings are as robust as they were last season, it will be worth the wait.

Preliminary California Department of Fish and Game data shows the 2011-12 season was a second straight state record-breaker, with landings rising to 31.6 million pounds worth $94.8 million. The totals surpass 2010-11's 27.5 million pounds worth $56.8 million. Average price per pound also rose from $2.06 to $2.99.

Northern California landings drove the increase, jumping from 8.4 million pounds to 16.2 million pounds.

This season's start may mimic last season's, says Pete Kalvass, senior marine biologist with the California Department of Fish and Game in Fort Bragg. In late September, Kalvass compared notes with biologists up and down the coast, who agreed that crabs hadn't started molting by the end of last season.

"If they hadn't noticed soft crab by the end of the season last year, the crab could be late again this year," he says.

Whether Dungies will be as plentiful as they've been the last two seasons remains to be seen.

"Last year was such an incredible season, and so was the year before that," Kalvass says. "It would be pretty hard to beat that."

Preliminary Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife 2011-12 coastal Dungeness harvest data, excluding tribal and Puget Sound Dungeness catches, shows a decline from 16.7 million pounds worth $47.2 million in 2010-11 to almost 8.6 million pounds worth $29.6 million last season. The average price was $3.45 last season, versus $2.82 in 2010-11.

Oregon's 2010-11 landings hit 21.2 million pounds worth nearly $49 million — the state's second highest value total ever. Last season wasn't quite as good, but still above average, according to the Oregon Dungeness Crab Commission. Crabbers landed 14.2 million pounds worth $42 million in 2011-12, with an average dock price of $2.95.

According to Nick Furman, the crab commission's longtime executive director, who announced his retirement on Oct. 4, lack of meat in the crab pushed the start of the central California season back from Nov. 15 to Jan. 1. Likewise, boats in northern California, Oregon and southern Washington, slated to begin Dec. 1, didn't start fishing until Jan. 15.

The delay deprived local and regional holiday season markets of Dungies, and buyers were only too ready to snatch up the first volumes of product hitting the docks. Usually that would trigger a bidding war among buyers. But Oregon crabbers had previously locked into a 20-day fixed price agreement of $2.30 a pound with the major processors.

As in years past, negotiations between the marketing associations and processors to determine a starting price were state sanctioned through the Oregon Department of Agriculture to comply with antitrust regulations. However, locking in for 20 days was a new wrinkle, Furman says, one he says he doesn't expect to return anytime soon.

On one hand, the negotiations yielded the highest starting price fishermen ever received for crab, Furman says. Then again, members of the respective marketing associations had to honor that price and ignore much higher offers from smaller buyers who cater to China's live markets.

Live buyers eventually got in the game, with some offers surpassing $5.50 per pound in March, April and May, Furman says.

Locking in the price "creates a significant amount of stability," says Furman, giving folks further along the distribution chain the luxury of running advertising and sales campaigns, knowing that their profit margins will remain solid for nearly three weeks.

As for plants producing clusters, sections, and fresh and frozen whole Dungies, the locked ex-vessel price kept a lid on at least one cost variable.

"They're looking at it from a value-adding standpoint, and they're also looking at it from an inventory standpoint," Furman says. "With live buyers, there's none of the expenses associated with any of this. They're here today and gone tomorrow." — Charlie Ess

Robust quota has fleet in rebound but IFQs contract the winners' circle

Gulf/South Atlantic Red Snapper

The red snapper market looks strong going into 2013. Dealers may have to cope with the enviable problem faced by Katie's Seafood Market, located on the historic Mosquito Fleet docks in Galveston, Texas.

"We're doing really good," says Nick Gutierrez, manager at Katie's. "We don't have enough to keep our customers satisfied."

This demand was resulting in an ex-vessel price running "about $4.95," Gutierrez says.

Reports from Alabama and Louisiana confirmed ex-vessel prices in the $4.50- to $5-per-pound range in mid-September. Griffin's Seafood in Golden Meadow, La., reported $5.25. That's a far cry from the sub-$2 range sometimes seen during the supply swings of the red snapper derby fishery that preceded IFQ management. Back then, trip limits and increasingly shorter monthly openings ratcheted up pressure on fishermen and the market, which responded as it generally does when supply isn't dependable.

Improving red snapper stocks have allowed the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council and NMFS to raise the commercial sector quota to 4.12 million pounds in 2012 and 4.43 million pounds in 2013. And demand appears robust enough to pace these increases, especially if the U.S. economy continues its slow recovery from the 2008 recession.

The vermilion snapper outlook, however, is uncertain. In some recent years, the total value of vermilion landings sometimes surpassed those of the much pricier but quota-limited red snapper. Eastern Gulf of Mexico fishermen profited from a mass relocation of vermilion snapper after the 2010 BP oil spill.

"After the oil spill, vermilion snapper were displaced to the east; landings went up in that area," says Leeville, La./Alachua, Fla. snapper fisherman Wayne Werner.

But now, he and other fishermen say they see a more disturbing shift.
"Now, B-liners, they are in a huge decline," he says. "We don't know if they can't reproduce or what... we don't like what we see."

More than two years after the BP well was capped, snapper fishermen say there are still places — notably for a couple hundred miles around the mouth of the Mississippi River — where they can't catch much of anything. However, overall, red snapper fishing is very good.

Werner did especially well on one recent trip.

"Two deckhands and myself, we caught 9,800 pounds in two days," he says. "Hook and line fishing, that's pretty good."

Werner's 42-foot Seaquest — unlike many gulf reef vessels that are rigged with longline and vertical line gear — sports only hydraulic bandit rigs.

Werner, a 2012 National Fisherman Highliner, was among those who pioneered hydraulic vertical line gear in the gulf.

"I was the first one in the western zone to have hydraulic bandits and start fishing in the deep water," he says. "My last trip we were fishing at 1,050 feet, off the edge of the shelf."

Red snapper management remains a political flashpoint, with a deep rift between those who favor IFQs and those who don't. And all of it is complicated by a looming allocation fight between commercial and recreational sectors.

Rep. Steve Southerland (R-Fla.) held a field hearing in Panama City in September on H.R. 6350, the Transparent and Science-Based Fishery Management Act of 2012. Designed to amend the Magnuson-Stevens Act, the bill would, among other provisions, require referendum votes for new catch share programs.

IFQ supporters fear the bill as the top of an anti-IFQ slippery slope.

Bill Kelly, executive director of the Florida Keys Commercial Fishermen's Association, a bill supporter and an opponent of new IFQs, was a panel member at the hearing. One of Kelly's primary concerns is transfer of catch shares out of the fishing industry. He would like to see a new assessment of such programs.

"We're seeing this migration of catch shares to non-fishing entities," he says.

Shares became available to any U.S. citizen in January, which concerns Werner, too.

"We don't want to see 50 percent of the fish owned by people sitting at home," he said. — Hoyt Childers

Inside the Industry

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